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Lowell Brueckner

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1 Corinthians 4


 Chapter 4

The importance of God’s judgment

1.      This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God
2.      Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
3.      But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.
4.      For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.
5.      Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

How are we to look at those, who are called into the ministry? Paul gives the Corinthians the true guidelines, which can be trusted, as the correct view concerning leadership in the church today. A little later, he will define particularly the apostolic ministry, but in the first verse he puts two titles upon himself, along with all others, who have a specific ministry to the church. This is not a position in a local church, but in the church, in general. 

These are to be seen as 1) servants and 2) stewards. In the last chapter we saw that ministry is synonymous with servanthood, and that comparison still holds, as we begin this chapter. However, Paul has chosen another Greek term for servant now, huperetes. Its definition is, literally, a subordinate oarsman. There are some Greek words which are very interesting and important in this chapter. It describes the slaves, who rowed the Roman ships. It is quite the opposite extreme of expecting honor as a captain, which is the picture that the Corinthians had formed of their favorite leader. They are to be seen, Paul shows, as galley slaves, chained to the bench and subject totally to Christ. If we are to apply this term literally, they are the oarsmen, who move the church forward through the sea of life. Obviously, there is no justification for those who lord it over others, so Peter warned the elders as a fellow elder, “Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 P.5:3).

The other term, which Paul uses is that of a steward. Stewards were household managers to a well-to-do family, under the authority of the head of the house. They managed the purchasing and the distribution of the food. A steward to the church, in this context, must collect and distribute the mysteries of God. He does it under the direction of the Holy Spirit, who reveals these secrets to him, after which, the steward must distribute them for the benefit of the body of Christ. Once again, he is a servant to Christ and to the church.

A steward must be faithful (2). He was in charge of the financial business and kept records. Jesus gave a parable of an unfaithful steward, who reduced the amount due to his master from his debtors (Lk.16:1-8). A steward of the things of God must never lessen the demands of Christ, in order to cheapen the cost of discipleship. They must be equal to the terms, which Jesus puts forth in the gospels: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk.14:27). “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” Lk.14:33, see also Lk.9:57-62).

The value that people put upon Paul is not of much concern to him, whether it be favorable or unfavorable judgment. He does not even put confidence in his own assessment of his ministry (3). Of course, he is weighing the worth of people’s opinion and his own opinion of himself, against the Judgment Seat of Christ. Keep this fact in mind: This is our one fear. I remember A.W. Tozer saying something similar to “I live continually under the fear of the Judgment Seat of Christ. It is a nice fear; it doesn’t keep me awake at night, but nevertheless I am continually conscious of it.” The Scriptures give ample evidence that a prophet or an apostle need not worry about the approval of men. Very often, God approved those who were rejected by their contemporaries. Likewise, the way that we view ourselves is certainly far less than accurate.

Of course, this fact should not produce carelessness or eliminate self-examination. Paul was not conscious of any failure or wrongdoing on his part. Had he known of any error or sin, he would have taken care of it. However, he is saying that God is the ultimate Judge. Even if a person believes that his slate is clean, as far as he knows, it does not assure him of a verdict of “not guilty” before the all-seeing eyes of the Lord (4). The Romans taught, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” David questioned, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps.19:12 ) and this was his prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me” (Ps.139:23,24).

We must humbly accept the imperfection of our point-of-view. We must understand two facts: 1) Our God is perfectly righteous and 2) we are not. Paul confronts this issue with finality in Romans 9: “Though they (Jacob and Esau) were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls – she (their mother Rebekah) was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Ro.9:11-13). Paul does not explain this humanly mind-boggling determination by God. The issue is put to rest with a question and a simple answer: “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means” (Ro.9:14). 

Rest in His perfect righteousness. The perfect view of justice is on God’s part, not ours. Don’t put God under judgment in the seat of the accused. We are not the judges, He is! Therefore, as far as we are concerned, we need to reserve judgment for the future, when God will present all the evidence, including the motives of the heart. Only then, will we know exactly where we stand before the Judge of the universe (5).

Paul is not dealing with judgment concerning salvation and condemnation. It is not the Great White Throne Judgment: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro.8:1). Christ took that judgment and paid its penalty and those, who trust in His work, can be absolutely sure about that. The future Day, of which he writes in chapter three (v.13) and in this portion is the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Some apostolic sarcasm

6.      I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another
7.      For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
8.      Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!

In order to teach the lesson, Paul has placed Apollos and himself (and Cefas/Peter) as examples before the Corinthian church. Beyond abiding by the clear teaching of Scripture, they and we are not to practice rivalry against each other, which is sure evidence of personal pride. Of course, violations against the Scripture are to be judged, condemned and where necessary, church discipline is to be applied, Outside of Scripture, we are to be humbly tolerant of different views and practices (6).

I keep thinking of James’ letter (4:10-12): “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

We could paraphrase the statement that begins verse 7… “Who sees anything different in you?”… What do you think is so special about you? Everything of value that a Christian possesses is a gift of grace that he has received from God. Nothing has come through his own efforts or goodness. Not only does this absolutely trash personal, spiritual superiority, but also annihilates the temptation of thinking of any local church or movement as superior. We are not receiving wages for commendable deeds, we are being showered with God blessings, which we do not deserve.

There is no room for boasting. Again, I turn to James’ declarations: “Do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic… But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Jm.3:14,15,17).

The KJV starts verse 8 a little better than the ESV: “Now ye are full”. Still, the Greek shows a little more: “You are crammed, glutted (gr. Dorennumi).We are getting some sarcasm from Paul, as he spoofs the Corinthians estimation of themselves. What is their estimation of their spirituality? They are rich. The estimation of their authority? They reign as kings… and you did it on your own! If this were really your true state, Paul asserts, we would be happy for you and we could enjoy your position with you. 

What is an apostle?

9.      For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.
10.  We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.
11.  To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless,
12.  and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;
13.  when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

We have come to a portion, in which Paul particularly assesses the apostolic ministry. We cannot understand verse 9 without some help from commentators. The Amplified Bible: “Exposing us to view last of all, like men in a triumphal procession who are sentenced to death and displayed at the end of the line… a spectacle… a show in the world’s amphitheater.” We add John Wesley’s comments for further clarification: “Alluding to the Roman custom of bringing forth those persons last on the stage, either to fight with each other, or with wild beasts, who were devoted to death; so that, if they escaped one day, they were brought out again and again, till they were killed.” They are an exhibition and men and angels are the spectators.

Rather than reigning as kings, Paul sees himself as if he were a prisoner of Rome in a coliseum. He contrasts the position of the apostle, the one sent out, with that of the Corinthian spectators, who have profited from his testimony. The details of the accurate description of himself will show that the world sees him as a fool, who has cast away the wonderful opportunities that it offered him, in order to know Christ (see Php.3:4-10).

Yesterday, I read the story of a missionary to Mexico, Marc Sankey, attending the funeral of a missionary woman in Texas, who had been killed in Mexico. Marc Sankey himself had been close to death, when a huge rock was thrown through his windshield by highway robbers near Celaya, Mexico. A TV reporter was astounded that he planned to return to Mexico with his wife and three boys. No doubt he considered him a fool. However, the martyr, Jim Elliot, killed by the Auca Indians proclaimed, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Writing his book, Sankey quoted Martin Luther:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,
The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever!

The Corinthians were enjoying all the benefits of the gospel and considered themselves wise. They thought that they were strong; Paul declared that he was weak. He was despised, while they were honored (10). All their conclusions were those of carnal minds, just as the apostle has already pronounced them to be carnal. They exalted their position and their favorite preachers. He continued with a literal depiction of the things he had experienced: Hunger, thirst, badly clothed, beaten, and homeless (11).

Paul physically worked his way through his ministry. He had been making tents in Corinth along with his new-found friends, Aquila and Priscilla, who had been expelled from Rome, The more compelling work of preaching the word afterwards totally occupied his time. By claiming, “when reviled, we bless”, he showed that He had learned the Christian principle well, to return good for evil. Jesus taught, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lc.6:28). In trials, the Christian must learn that he is not left to depend on his own strength, but to look above for grace: “He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (He.13:5,6). Paul learned to endure (12).

When subject to lies and slander, he summoned his accusers to believe the truth of the gospel. As to being the scum of the world, the refuse of all things, Adam Clarke explains that both the Greek word for scum and for refuse are related to a kind of sacrifice: “To understand the full force of these words, as applied by the apostle in this place, we must observe that he alludes to certain customs among the heathens, who, in the time of some public calamity, chose out some unhappy men of the most abject and despicable character to be a public expiation for them… having heaped all the curses of the country upon their heads, and whipped them seven times, they burned them alive, and afterwards their ashes were thrown into the sea.”  (13)

Counselling beloved children

14.  I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.
15.  For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
16.  I urge you, when, be imitators of me.
17.  That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
18.  Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.
19.  But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.
20.  For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
21.  What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

No true Christian leader enjoys the necessary duty of rebuke and Paul did not relish the direction that he needed to take in his writing. Exposing the arrogance of the Corinthians, by demeaning himself, certainly must have caused some shame among the sensitive people, who were open to correction. However, that was not Paul’s aim; his motivation was love, similar to the love of a father to his children (14).

By the context of this letter, in calling himself a father, Paul is not giving himself a superior title, such as Jesus referred to, when He commanded his disciples, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt.23:9). Throughout these chapters, he is belittling, not exalting, himself, otherwise he would only be fanning the flames of controversy, which he intended to quench. He is speaking of the degree of love that only he can have, as the one, who brought them to spiritual birth (15). That is his point: This letter is a work of love.

Then he gives counsel, which could never be given concerning myself, except in a very general, limited way. However, Paul can call on the believers to imitate him. In all the spiritual practices, which he has named, the church member should desire to do the same. We will just look at those he mentioned in this chapter: To be as sons following their father as subordinate oarsmen, as responsible stewards, as a shameful spectacle, in the eyes of the world, at the end of the line. To join the apostle, willing to face deprivation of even the basic things of life, to be reviled, yet to bless, to endure persecution, to gently urge the slanderers towards the truth. Finally, they may imitate the apostle’s godly love (16). This is the call to Christian discipleship!

As the heavenly Father sent His Son to tabernacle upon the earth, Paul, in a lesser sense to be sure, sends his beloved son, Timothy, to the church in Corinth. Since he is instructing them to imitate him, Timothy is going there to remind them of the apostle’s ways in Christ, should the memory be fading. Yes, Paul has learned the ways of Christ, so different from the world, and can only ask that they imitate him in those ways. They are nothing besides the doctrines, which he established in the early church, which we are to continue to follow 20 centuries later (17).   

At this point, he makes it very clear that the extremely serious, spiritual sin behind all the disorder in Corinth is arrogance. Arrogance keeps the Christian in a state of carnality; arrogance breeds division and makes him think of himself far above his true state. It is something beyond pride; the literal translation is puffed up or inflated. This is what Paul is describing, concerning this church throughout the chapter, and is what Jesus compared to the work of leaven. It makes bread appear to be greater than it is substantially. Those in this condition are taking advantage of Paul’s absence and are not looking forward to him coming (18).

He assures that he will come and we want to seriously consider the evidence, by which he will assess their situation firsthand. He will be looking for spiritual power for, he affirms, that is an essential proof of the kingdom of God. Are these arrogant “Christians” just good talkers, or is God supporting them, by evidence of His presence through demonstrations of His power? (19) When he says it does not consist in talk, (the Greek is logos) he is not saying that the gospel is not the preaching of the word, but that it is not only the preaching of the word. It must be accompanied by supernatural power. Paul uses the Greek word commonly used in Scripture... dunamis significando, according to the Greek dictionary, specifically miraculous power (by implication a miracle itself).  (20). That continues to be a requirement in our times, in spite of the fact that doctrines have arisen to try to eliminate it. See this characteristic of the end times: “(People will be) having the appearance of godliness, but denying the power (the same Greek word, dunamis)(2 Ti.3:5). What would Paul have to say about the gospel in our times?

Paul continues to address these arrogant ones, who are doubting that he will come to Corinth. It will not be a pleasant visit, if he comes with the disciplining rod. The same man, who is confessing his weakness and fear, who is comparing himself to fools and slaves on a Roman ship, is a force to be reckoned with, under the authority of the Holy Spirit. It will be much better for the church, if he arrives in a spirit of gentleness (21).


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